Vision-impaired students seek accommodations in virtual classrooms
When Ann Wai-Yee Kwong arrived at UCSB for grad school, she knew the school hadn’t worked with a student like her in a long time.
She’s blind and uses braille to understand graphs and charts in her classes. She was ushered into the disability lab in the library and found an old, defunct embosser. It couldn’t produce the graphs she needed, so the school purchased a new one.
Her experience isn’t abnormal for blind or visually impaired (BVI) students. Only 16.2% of people who are visually impaired have a college degree, according to calculations made by the Cornell University Yang Tan Institute using the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey.
By comparison, 33.4% of those without visual impairment have a college degree.
It’s important to note that visual impairment has varying degrees of severity, blindness being the extreme.
Miss Kwong works as a transition program specialist at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. She works to help students and adults integrate into the work environment.
Lately, she’s been helping students adjust to distance learning.
“Right now during these pretty interesting as well as trying times, it’s particularly prevalent for our younger students; they still really rely on the home environment and the family to support their education,” she said.
Each time a new website is introduced, BVI students have to learn the layout of the screen and the function of the buttons. A tool called a screen reader gives an auditory reading of the page, but some websites aren’t compatible.
She says Zoom, a software many teachers use to hold classes virtually, is pretty accessible with her screen readers. That is until the professor shares their screen with the students, which they often do.
She wishes more instructors knew to explain the visuals. Many teachers like to point at things, without saying aloud what they’re pointing at. And BVI students have to guess what the rest of the class can see.
When Miss Kwong started doing research in college, she had to get a librarian to help her understand each research database. But students right now can’t sit down with their school librarians.
She wonders how hard it would be if she had started college virtually. She learned a lot on campus that she now uses as a virtual student.
Like, she learned to ask a professor for the list of required materials five to six weeks before the class starts. She gets the list, takes it to the California Department of Rehabilitation to help her get a digital textbook compatible with her screen reader.
Professors often add books, though, or create handouts closer to the class date, and it makes it hard for BVI students to get the materials in time.
“I wish that whatever platform that a professor or a teacher is using, that it’s as universal as universally designed and accessible as possible before they choose to use that platform. And I think that’s a big ask,” Miss Kwong said. “It’s often difficult if you are not familiar with disabilities and accommodations to know if it’s accessible.”
She understands why teachers can struggle with accessibility, but wishes accommodations would be in place before a blind or visually impaired student steps on campus — or logs online.